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Improving student attitudes toward math through highly contextualized, meaningful curriculum

I challenge the belief that math is simply a prerequisite or only relevant to scientists and engineers. Math is the foundation for logical and analytical thinking and plays a critical role in a student’s academic development. For many, the content is viewed as enrichment in an educational journey. But, for others, it can be a psychological barrier to earning a degree.

Math educators are always looking for ways to remove barriers that may derail students’ learning goals. A focus on student attitude, contextualized learning and a systematic formative process for accessing and assessing student knowledge can help create a more authentic and supportive curriculum to help students succeed.

This was the approach University of Phoenix took last year when we embarked upon a redesign of our instructional model for mathematics courses with the courseware provider zyBooks, a Wiley Vendor. The redesign was in response to student feedback regarding fear, content irrelevance and challenges. That fear, paired with struggling to see the relevance of the content and how it aligned with their degree, was not creating a space for them to experience success.

We decided it was time to reimagine the way our math classes are taught to explicitly focus on student attitude, contextualized and meaningful content, and formative coaching and feedback. The result is an asynchronous learning environment that has improved our math instruction and student outcomes. Our students are not only demonstrating proficiency in math content, they are happy about it.

As predominantly in-person colleges make the transition to online education, there are many decisions to be made. Consider three key takeaways from our journey as a guide to selecting a research-based, highly contextualized and meaningful online curriculum that can help improve student outcomes.

Consider and enhance student attitudes about math

Many students, as a result of prior experience and performance, express an aversion to math. Because of this, math becomes a barrier to complete college coursework and, in some cases, a barrier to deciding to even enroll in any college program at all.

Students need an instructional environment that encourages them to form positive attitudes toward math. We incorporated several research-based math education tenets and explored ways of translating these into an asynchronous online environment.

The primary focuses for course development were:
• Ensuring supportive and accessible language throughout all course text, dialogue and coaching.
• Incorporating reflective and authentic weekly discussion questions.
• Implementing self-regulatory progress indicators to develop confidence as students progressed through course components.
• Conducting attitudinal surveys to monitor student thoughts and attitudes throughout the course.

Contextualize authentic content

Contextualized learning happens best when the curriculum is designed for the specific needs, interests and experiences of students. It can only be successful if you know your students well. Attempts to contextualize shouldn’t feel forced or irrelevant. Instead, they should utilize real situations from students’ lives.

We found that providing authentic content that is interesting and relevant to students helped break down their fears and biases about math. For example, our adult learners responded well to learning modules on accurately measuring flooring for a home remodel or choosing a mortgage loan when you refinance.

These are math problems they encounter in their everyday lives, and it presents math as a helpful life skill rather than an irrelevant barrier to the rest of their education. While these were relevant to our generally older students, they wouldn’t necessarily be appropriate for a younger student body demographic.

Use assessment to create safe learning spaces

Typically, when students enter college without math fluency, they are offered remediation. Our analysis found students need more opportunities to practice and receive feedback about what they are learning to truly abandon their deeply ingrained fear of math.

Frequent, low-stakes assessments, coupled with a real-time coaching component, offer a safe, formative space for students to apply and build on knowledge. This creates an environment where students can get an answer wrong, practice and receive feedback without being penalized for learning through application—a normal and crucial part of the learning process. This is something that is missing in a lot of educational experiences, especially online.

When assessments are tied strongly to grades or are required for students to make progress, the student mindset easily can slip into being driven to get correct answers rather than to truly understand the content. Formative assessment truly needs to be used to form ideas for the student. To do this, students must have the opportunity to receive coaching to support them through the formative experience.

When investigating potential online options for mathematics courses, don’t be afraid to advocate for your students and push hard for adjustments to your offerings that allow you to offer a rich, robust online learning experience that best serves your unique student population.